Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Nigel Hey. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Nigel. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Nigel: Somewhere I have a copy of a story I wrote in my home town of Morecambe when I was 9 but I was 11 before I was paid for anything, with the frisson of having the cheque come from the BBC. My mother had always encouraged me to be a writer, but the money convinced me.
Morgen: What a great way to start and I’m liking your mother. 🙂 And then…?
Nigel: We moved to the States. I doubled as a part-time printer’s devil, reporter, and proof-reader for a small weekly newspaper at 14, wrote children’s columns for three weeklies at 16, then got my degree in journalism at the University of Utah (!) and immediately escaped to fulltime newspaper jobs in Bermuda and England. Eventually I became based in New Mexico, working as a science writer for a very large and creative organisation (10,000 employees), Sandia National Laboratories. I retired from there and became a media consultant / writer. Wonderment is my sixth book. I live nine months a year in New Mexico and three months in England, and if taxes permit I wouldn’t mind switching that ratio.
Morgen: I don’t know about New Mexico’s taxes but I’m guessing the weather’s better too (although England’s not as wet as most movies make out to be). Starting with your non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Nigel: Working at Sandia, I was primed to write about science and technology, so my first three books were young-adult (secondary school) books about science – astronomy and agronomy. The second three, all published in the past ten years, are about the solar system, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”), and my autobiography.
Morgen: A great variety. What have you had published to-date? And have you ever used a pen name?
Nigel: Wonderment (Matador 2012): A globetrotting writer’s adventurous life story, interleaving career, domestic life, and departures from the expected. Meantime his philosophy evolves from a child’s fears to a mature, optimistic picture for the future of humankind. (ISBN13: 9781780882864)
The Star Wars Enigma (Potomac Books, ̣̣̣2006): The “inside” political and scientific story of the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative, derived largely from interviews with leading players in the United States, Russia (USSR), and Britain. (ISBN13: 9781574889819)
Solar System (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002) The richly illustrated story of planetary exploration, with emphasis on the engineering marvels accomplished during unmanned space flights. Author has recovered publication rights. (ISBN13: 9780304359943)
Earlier YA science books: How We Will Explore the Outer Planets (Putnam, ISBN13: 9780399607639), The Mysterious Sun (Putnam, SBN13: 9780399604829), How Will We Feed the Hungry Billions? (Messner, ISBN13: 9780671324667)
I have used a pen-name, but not since I edited the Bermuda News Pictorial, when I wanted to make people think I had a staff.
Morgen: So you’ve gone the traditional and self-published route, what led to you going your own way?
Nigel: I am realistic that autobiographies of the un-famous are not overly popular (I’m not Brad Pitt) and it would be difficult to get noticed by the few big publishers that remain in an industry that is economically harassed. In my case self-publishing seemed realistic, though expensive. In the past publishers have paid me (ungenerously) for my writing. Marketing is certainly more arduous than writing, my traditional publishers weren’t much more help in that department than my self-publisher.
Morgen: “economically harassed” what a wonderful phrase. Are your books available as eBooks?
Nigel: The Star Wars Enigma is available on Kindle. Wonderment is available on Kindle and Nook.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Nigel: I have always had a say in the titles and covers of my books – except in the case of the gorgeously produced Solar System, which title Weidenfeld & Nicolson persisted in leaving as-is after they deleted the words Mapping The, intended for a series, from the front end. I sent them a dozen alternatives but they would not budge. Titles are important; weak titles are ignored unless they are seen on an arresting piece of cover art. Wonderment fits its book perfectly; it’s just a shame that others have used the same title – I learned about this too late to change.
Morgen: I like ‘Mapping the…’ but then you have to assume that publishers know what they’re doing and you certainly sound happy with the overall result. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Nigel: Weidenfeld & Nicolson handed back the rights to Solar System to me, so that could give me a leg up with a new book on that subject. However, it begs for lovely illustrations, and lovely illustrations cost a lot to print. By comparison a self-published rework of the subject with a few B&W photos like those in Wonderment would be a dull and disappointing affair even with a flashy title.
I have a book about a visitor to New Mexico who challenges himself to learn all he possibly can about this highly unusual place, with unexpected consequences. It is in draft form but I am not altogether happy with it. Maybe an editor would help.
Morgen: I think they always do. Everyone should at least have a first reader (which is why I set up http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback and http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/online-writing-groups). Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Nigel: I never have writer’s block. I have an affliction called prolixity.
Morgen: That’s not a word I’d come across before so had to Google it (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/prolixity) and think I have it too… I can certainly talk for England. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Nigel: Yes, I do a LOT of editing. I’m hard on myself, and when I finally decide the book is finished I know it could be improved even if no one else would notice it was improved.
Morgen: It’s like housework; no-one notices unless it’s not done. Do you have to do much research?
Nigel: It depends on the subject. The first three books required a lot, Solar System not so much partly because the first two books contributed to it. Star Wars Enigma took the most – I was interviewing people in New Mexico and Washington, did some bibliographic study at Kings College London, and ended up going to Moscow for a fruitful week of interviewing prominent experts in anti-missile weapons and lasers. Wonderment was derived from my personal journals, diaries, and letters, but I did dip into the Internet for some fact-checking.
Morgen: I love that we have that resource. We never have to leave our chairs again. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Nigel: Definitely. I wrote Millennium Three in the 1970s. It took mountains of research and I learned a lot from it. It’s amazing how out of date it is today. Safari for Three Spies was written when I was 29. It was a novel and so bad I destroyed every copy I could find – these days I would probably self-publish under an alias, if I could live with myself afterwards. And then there were a couple of stage plays.
Morgen: I wrote a script for the now defunct http://ScriptFrenzy.org which I found quite tortuous but I enjoyed the story so converted into the beginning of a novel. It’s one of five I plan to finish, have proofread / edited and get online by the end of the year. 🙂 Do you ever pitch for submissions?
Nigel: I have pitched but seem to keep busy without it. I pitched an article on comets successfully to Smithsonian, but no, I don’t do much of it. I have a drawer full of unpitched, unpublished articles, some of them pretty good.
Morgen: That’s the right way round, you can’t submit something you’ve not written. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Nigel: I had rejections in the good old days when editors sent you a nice-sounding standard rejection from a bale of them sitting at their elbows. Today you don’t know if you have a rejection or whether your pitch was chucked in the wastepaper basket or eaten by the Internet. People don’t seem to reject any more. They mostly ignore.
Morgen: They do, which is a shame. A “thanks but no thanks” doesn’t take a minute to send (especially if you have standard replies you can copy / paste). Do you enter any non-fiction competitions?
Nigel: No, and perhaps it’s a mistake. I’m mending my ways with Wonderment.
Morgen: Providing you don’t have to pay much to enter, I don’t think it hurts. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Nigel: No. They can be very helpful but this is not always the case and / or they may not be able to do everything that the author expects of them. They can secure an author’s success; on the other hand the author still can go out in the world, find his own publisher, and fight for attention and sales.
Morgen: They can, and sometimes get ‘found’ that way. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Nigel: I haven’t done much of the marketing in the past, but times are a-changing in publishing, as you very well know.
Morgen: I do. 🙂
Nigel: I have paid my self-publisher to do some marketing, which was minimal, but set up my own book signings. I have amassed a large email list, mostly hand-picked, of possible buyers in America and the U.K., I pass out my fancy book-orientated business cards, and I go to meetings – importantly those that attract writers, science writers, science-writing academics, and science communicators.
Morgen: Out of nearly 800 interviews (c.100 posted on https://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com), I’ve only had two authors say that their publisher does all their marketing, yet those authors are still active on Twitter and Facebook. What’s your favourite aspect of your writing life?
Nigel: I honestly enjoy writing and doing the research that is generally required for nonfiction books.
Morgen: Writing’s my favourite and I’d say editing and researching are my least favourite but at least we don’t have to spend hours at the local library finding out when Albert Einstein was born (1879 – thank you http://www.famousbirthdays.com/people/albert-einstein.html). Although it means the libraries aren’t being supported anywhere near as much as they used to be, which is a shame. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Nigel: Ask yourself if you have the ease with words, the discipline, and the passion to write something that someone else will be eager to read. And then get all the training and practice you can before you start looking for a publisher. Writing is like music – you must keep at it or risk losing the opportunity to have others share your interests and your talent.
Morgen: It does take passion and dedication. It has to consume even just a small aspect of your life, or 95% of it in my case. 🙂 If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Nigel: From the 1990s when these people were accessible, I would invite my mother, my father, and my best friend, and cook them my best chicken Kiev.
Morgen: Ooh, I haven’t had one of those for months. I’d choose my father too (who died September 2001). If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Nigel: The day I was present for my eldest son’s birth. Because it was magic.
Morgen: Ahh… (Nigel wrote a lovely poem about his son: http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/post-weekend-poetry-067-fifteen-by-nigel-hey) Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Nigel: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” — Stewart Brand
Morgen: <laughs> You also write fiction – are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Nigel: The great thing about fiction is that, if you do the hard work early and honestly get to know your characters, you can put them in an interesting, intriguing, or horrifying scenario and let them play with and against each other until they present you with a bestselling story. In true non-fiction (not so much narrative non-fiction), history presents you with the elements of a story and it is up to you to select the facts that are essential to the story and interesting to your readers, and weave them into a compelling narrative.
Morgen: That’s a great of putting it. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Nigel: After the addition of a fictional subplot, The Star Wars Enigma is the best, but was poorly promoted though I had an agent and a traditional publisher. This is the one book that would make a good film. Elements of a film are in Wonderment as well. I’d want to have Tommy Lee Jones in it, but would have to invent a part for Meryl Streep.
Morgen: It wasn’t the greatest script in the world, but they were great (with Steve Carrell) in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_Springs_(2012_film). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Nigel: In non-fiction, history does it for me, but I have to choose the textual organisation and craft the story nevertheless.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Nigel: I’ve tried second, but prefer first and third and like them equally.
Morgen: Most people do, but good on you for trying second. Many writers haven’t even heard of it. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Nigel: I have done some editing and like it if paid reasonably, but am not regularly involved with it.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Nigel: I use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, but mostly to promote my writing or to expose others to pass on information and commentary via my blog or otherwise. The blog is at http://www.adobe-hacienda.blogspot.com.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Nigel: It will require flexibility, patience, and most probably the backup of a salaried job.
Morgen: Oops. I left mine just over a year ago but rent out two rooms of my house which covers the bills. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Nigel: My website (http://www.nigelhey.com) and Goodreads.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Nigel: You’ve asked me all the important questions. While not really an organisation man, I am a long-time member of the Association of British Science Writers, US National Association of Science Writers, American Association for the Advancement of Science Writers (of which I was elected a fellow), and SouthWest Writers.
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Nigel: It would require an afternoon of time and many cups of tea.
Morgen: It’s my favourite hot drink. 🙂 Thank you for joining me today, Nigel.
I then invited Nigel to include an extract of his writing…
Dusk, driving westward and down into the darkening valley of the Rio Grande, struck by the sight of ancient volcanoes in near-silhouette, a dozen miles across the valley, lighted only by a palette of earth colours against a turquoise sky and a few silky strands of pinkish cloud. I hold the wonder close, watching without thought until the colours melt away. Then I thank something far beyond my ken for this moment, and for the gift of knowing its wonder. The joy of natural beauty is not new to me. But this particular view, descending into the valley with the mountains at my back, is my favourite, the most precious. It seems only to happen at special times, when the light is just right, a few minutes after I turn westward from the freeway. It prompts me to reach for my camera, but I know this would be foolishness, for no camera could catch the visual magic. Rumi said, “No metaphor can say this, but I can’t help pointing to the beauty.
The experience stayed with me until I reached home. When I settled into my patio chair I realized that my set of mind was such that I could begin a game I play with myself, almost an actualized dream of flying that is controlled and accessible at my whim. When I transport myself into a leaf, dancing on the top of that elm tree, and move with it in the wind, or when I melt into that sun-warmed, rain-washed, water-rounded chunk of granite, something wonderful happens. The ego disappears! and suddenly in this wedding with natural things there is no separation in life or death. I wonder whether some people will encounter something similar only to have it fly away frightened before they are fully aware of it, and do not commit it to reasoned thought. Could something inside us dismiss it automatically, as being foreign to the culture of which we are part? Is it something that comes with age? No, for I have known brotherhood with my non-human companions since my early years. There is no way I can explain it, except to say that it is a wonderful thing. — Nigel S. Hey, Wonderment, ch.24
And a synopsis…
Wonderment keeps the action going from the author’s childhood nightmares to the suspense of a brush with death in the neurology unit of a London hospital. Sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, it is the first-person life history of a writer who was born with a love of adventure, travel, people, and the mystery of who we are and why – laced with the humour, romance, family lore and drama that anchors a life well lived. He masters the burden of ill health and gradually, to his surprise, discovers his own spirituality.
Here’s the synopsis in one (long) sentence: After spending most of his early years in World War II England, an asthmatic boy arrives by chance in the middle of Utah, spends his first US years as a student and printer’s devil in a small Mormon town, develops his life goals in college, and flees to Bermuda, starting a roller-coaster life in which he becomes a science writer and world traveller, a philosopher with a deep respect for American Indians, a top-secret-cleared government executive, and a twice-divorced father of three who, after surviving multiple near-death experiences, becomes a “citizen of the world” with residences in New Mexico and London, content, with most of his life goals realized.
Much of Nigel Hey’s career, since moving to New Mexico in 1965, has been associated with science writing, the rest with other enterprises that we tend to lump together as various parts of “the media.” His personal life includes some quite different subject material – living twin lives as an Englishman and an American; being always enticed by adventure and travel; cultivating a spiritual and philosophical life; bringing up a family; friendships with Native American people; and living since infancy with chronic asthma.
When people ask him why he decided to be a journalist, or a writer, he replies simply that it is because he is curious, and that being more specific would tie him down to a relatively narrow field. Writing, he says, and the observation and research that supports it, satisfies his curiosity while never failing to fill him with even more wonder.
Most recently he was a science writer, national media chief, and consultant for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico At other times he served as a reporter on the Kentish Express, editor of the Bermuda News Pictorial, and editorial director of the London-based publications arm of IMS International (now Dun & Bradstreet’s IMS Health).
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